Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Gardener's Tale - Part I

We have a fairly large backyard, by suburban north Florida standards at least -- about 180 feet deep. Over our almost 20 years here we have used traditional neighborhood landscaping -- St. Augustine grass lawns (northerners often refer to this heat-tolerant, broad leaf, course southern grass as being similar to their northern crab grass), border and foundation hedges, an orange tree or two, a few Florida long-leaf pines, a magnolia tree, water oak, a colorful assortment of crepe myrtles, and a few flower beds around the edges. I put down a brick walk between the back porch and a concrete tile patio behind the orange tree a few years back, added confederate jasmine as a spreading ground cover base for our "wooded" corner under the magnolia, and put in our first butterfly garden in the center of the yard (in the hole left by the removal of an old pine) last Memorial Day weekend.

The thing about traditional suburban Florida landscaping, particularly St. Augustine grass lawns, is that 1) they are always thirsty and require a great deal of water to keep green and healthy, and 2) they are nitrogen hungry -- requiring regular fertilization (not to mention chemical weeding and destructive insect control). In order to have the neatly manicured, bright green Florida lawn (that mimics the traditional green lawns of the north, from which most of us have fled) we Floridians basically have to wreak environmental havoc upon the local bio-systems. Our nitrogen rich run-off and grass clippings wash into the neighborhood drainage systems, into the ground water, and ultimately into the St. Johns river, creating algae blooms that suck out the oxygen -- killing the native flora and fauna. We are desperately damaging the central fixture of the northeast Florida geography - our river. Because of central Florida's water-lust, Orlando and several of it's neighbors have developed plan to drain up to 400,000 gallons of water per day from the St. Johns. Mrs. Muse and I (both being members and volunteers from the St. Johns Riverkeeper) decided that, in our own small way, we needed to do something. Remember hearing the phrase "think global, act local"? That's what we've decided to do. So we've spent about half of this year's vacation time by beginning to remove the St. Augustine lawn in the backyard and replacing it, a few feet at a time, with native ground cover and other local plants with low water and nitrogen appetites.

We had started earlier this spring by carving out a second 10 x 10 foot butterfly garden, using plants sent by Mrs. Muse's mom in memory of my mother, who passed away in January. I had also removed an additional 60 square feet of St. Augustine and replace it with confederate jasmine in the farthest back point of the yard. Then, a few days before we left on our trip north, I sprayed an herbicide on an irregular quadrilateral section, roughly 15 feet deep and 40 feet long -- close to 600 square feet.

When we returned last weekend, the grass was dead as planned. Pronging and raking it out required only a few hours of manual labor as St. Augustine grass is a shallow-rooted surface crawler. The recalcitrant remains that were left could be removed by hand, concurrent with re-planting.

The fun part was yesterday's trip up to Trad's Garden Center (highly recommended!) to wander the acres of plants and make our selections. We knew for the most part what we were looking for before we went -- confederate jasmine, variegated confederate jasmine, ornamental peanut (they didn't have any) -- then added a few items for interest on the recommendation of Trad's staff -- yellow creeper (a ground cover with small yellow flowers), creeping fig (a fence climber), yellow bulbine (a bunching flowering perennial), and tri-colored confederate jasmine.

Today's job is to get this stuff in the ground. I don't have a plot plan on paper for this, but I have one in my head...
I will post a photo or two of the completed planting -- then continue with periodic updates on our adventure in Florida xeriscaping. The plan, at least for now, is to take out half of the grass in the back yard, leaving a couple of small islands of St. Augustine between the back porch and the gardens. Stay tuned.....

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